Tag Archives: mesoamericans

From Earthy to Elegant: The Evolution of the Chocolate Pot


Chocolate drinks created from cacao beans date back to the Mesoamericans many centuries ago. In fact, researchers have identified an instance where cacao residue was found on a pottery shard at the archeological site of the  Paso de la Amada village occupied by the Mokaya people dating to 1900 to 1500 BC (Presilla 10). Serving vessels used for the precious chocolate elixir created from cacao have varied over time. As the various ingredients for labor intensive chocolate beverages have evolved, so have the vessels that were blessed with the liquid.

Ancient Barra ceramics- oldest know chocolate vessels (dated to 1900-1500 BC) (Coe and Coe 89)

The early chocolate vessels of the Mesoamerican culture were crafted of ceramics and adorned with colorful designs and hieroglyphics. Specific hieroglyphics offered a hint of Mayan life depicting images that represented parts of their culture. Through scientific analysis, chemist W. Jeffrey Hurst of the Hershey Company determined that both theobromine and caffeine were detected in a jar discovered in a Rio Azul tomb in Guatemala, evidence that cacao had been contained in the vessel (Presilla 9). Cacao is the only Mesoamerican plant that contains both theobromine and caffeine (Coe and Coe 36). In the image below, the hieroglyphic for cacao is labeled on the exterior of the jar, another telltale sign that it contained chocolate at one time (Martin). The clever locking lid on the burial object was an industrious way to keep the sacred chocolate beverage safe and secure. Not only was the vessel sturdy and functional, it also boasts a lovely shape where the lid can be likened to a halo or crown, perhaps worthy of an important person or ruler buried in the tomb.


Chocolate jar with locked-lid found in a Rio Azul tomb, dated to ca. 500 A.D.

Fast forward to 1125 AD and the shape of the vessels appeared to have changed. As pictured in the image below, the jars were taller and cylindrical in nature. Black and white jars attributed to that era found in the New Mexican Pueblo Bonito offer evidence of the influence of the Mesoamericans and their trade between the Toltec merchants (Coe and Coe 55). Archeologist Patricia Crown of the University of New Mexico sought confirmation from W. Jeffrey Hurst that sherds from the cylindrical jars from New Mexican Pueblo Bonito trash mound contained elements of cacao (Coe and Coe 55). Hurst confirmed that the sherds (dating between 1000 and 1125 AD) tested positive for theobromine, sufficient confirmation that the Anasazi elite, ancestors of the Pueblo Indians drank chocolate from these vessels (Coe and Coe 55).



Cylindrical jar from Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon.

Credit: James Garber

As the Spanish invaded Mesoamerica, their influence on the native culture was undeniable and the ritual of chocolate drinking was no exception. In the pre-Conquest days, Mesoamericans raised foam on a chocolate beverage by the simple task of pouring the chocolate beverage from one vessel to another (Coe and Coe 85). In the early 16th century the molinillo, a wooden stick, was used to twirl the liquid to form a foam on the top, a method still used today in some preparations in Mexico and Latin America. However, in the post-Conquest era, vessels that held chocolate beverages changed and spanned a broad range of designs that were both functional and fashionable.

Chocolate was introduced to the United Kingdom  during the third quarter of the 17th century (Mintz 108). At that time, craftsman designed chocolate pots that were appropriate for both the liquid and the elite drinkers.  In addition to ceramic or porcelain, chocolate pots evolved to include pewter, silver and even gold.

18th Century silver British chocolatière

The image above  represents a pot with an adjustable finial that can be removed to allow the insertion of a stirring rod, the British version of a molinillo.  This shiny design is representative of a delicate serving pot that nods to the refined practice of serving chocolate to the British elite.

In contrast to the British pot, the image below represents a design created by Edward Winslow, an 18th century American silversmith from Boston, Massachusetts. Unlike the delicate three legged British pot, Winslow’s handsome pot is constructed with a solid base, perhaps indicative of the sturdiness required of early colonists in the new world.

Chocolate Pot

Early 18th century silver chocolate pot 

If we compare the image of the Barra ceramics in the first image and the last photo of the Winslow chocolate pot, it is hard to believe they were used for the same purpose. The striking difference of the rich warm colors of the rounded ceramic vessels versus the hard cold metal of the 18th century pots are quite opposite and distinct.

Just as the chocolate vessels have evolved over time so has the desire or lack thereof for chocolate beverages. Regardless of the type of chocolate pot, the prominence of drinking chocolate in North America and Europe began to wane at the beginning of the 20th century when solid chocolate first appeared. Chocolate aficionados  seem to prefer the quick fix of a chocolate bar that can satiate chocolate desire without spending time on the ritual and lengthy preparation of a chocolate beverage and need for chocolate pots.

                 Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 1 Feb. 2017. Lecture

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and power : the place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.

Mcgovern, Pat. “RioAzul Chocolate-Pot.” Flickr. Yahoo!, 17 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <https://www.flickr.com/photos/patmcgovern/4113214840/in/photolist-7gtitf&gt;.

Parry, Wynne. “Sweet Trading: Chocolate May Have Linked Prehistoric Civilizations.” LiveScience. Purch, 01 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <http://www.livescience.com/13533-prehistoric-chocolate-trade-cacao-chaco-canyon-puebloans.html&gt;.

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate : a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Berkeley Calif: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

“Chocolate Pot | Edward Winslow | 33.120.221 | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/33.120.221/&gt;.

Digital image. Chocolate Pot. Wikimedia Commons, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph-Th%C3%A9odore_Van_Cauwenbergh_-_Chocolate_Pot_-_Walters_571802.jpg








Delicious Medicine

Mary_Poppins5chocolate prescription

In Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews sang a song about how “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and in the case of chocolate, she was most certainly correct. Medicine has historically been reputed to have a bitter taste, so it makes sense that as far back as the Aztecs (and possibly the Olmecs), chocolate has been attributed as having all sorts of healing properties and positive effects on the body.  In this essay, we will explore the use of chocolate as a health remedy along with how and why these uses have changed over time.

Historically, cacao consumption is believed to have started in Mesoamerica.  Cacao was consumed by Aztec elites as an after dinner treat, and cacao consumption was featured in certain Aztec rituals [1].  However, from European historical accounts by both Bernal Diaz del Castillo and the Franciscan friar, Bernadino de Saharan, we know that the Aztecs used cacao as a sexual stimulant as well as for a variety of health problems including heart trouble, infections, respiratory illness, and hemorrhoids [2].  In Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries, Mesoamericans are described as using cacao to treat snakebites and to strengthen their warriors for battle [3].  While the consumption of cacao was seen as spiritual amongst the Maya, they were also known to use cacao in order to treat skin ailments, epilepsy, and fever [2].  With so many amazing healing properties, colonial Europeans must have believed cacao to be a medical marvel.


Cacao was transformed when it was brought to the European continent.  Cacao went from a drink that was mostly used by Mesoamericans for ritualistic purposes to a drink that was used primarily for medicinal purposes [1]. The Church played a large role in relegating European chocolate consumption to medical purposes.  This was due to the fact that chocolate was seen as a mind altering substance, a euphoria-inducing experience, and its consumption potentially went against Church fasting rituals [1].  In order to get around Church skepticism, many scholars wrote about the medical uses of chocolate, and they tried to make chocolate fit into the “humoral system” [1].  Using Galen’s theory, early European physicians tried to classify chocolate as hot or cold and wet or dry based on their own observations and most likely their personal taste preferences [1].  In the end, colonial Europeans used chocolate to treat hysteria, melancholy, thinness, fatigue, chest pains, kidney disease, stomach ailments, anemia, fainting, STDs, blood circulation, hypochondria and respiratory ailments [1][2][3].


Today, chocolate consumption in the mass quantities seen in Mesoamerica and Europe is considered part of an unhealthy lifestyle.  This has led big chocolate companies like Hersheys and Mars to fund research into the health benefits of cacao in order to reclassify chocolate as a superfood and widen their market shares.  Therefore, many studies have been done in recent years in order to prove that regular cacao consumption will improve a person’s health.  Modern studies have shown that dark chocolate improves heart health, suppresses cough and improves respiratory function, is good for mental health, improves cognitive function, and helps with gastrointestinal disorders [3][4].

In conclusion, moderate dark chocolate consumption is beneficial for a person’s health.  However, it is important to understand that historically medical science has been used to promote the consumption of chocolate and that this tradition continues to this day.  Many of the chocolate health studies are funded by those who have a financial stake in the results, and it is difficult for people to understand that milk chocolate will not confer the same health benefits as dark chocolate.  Therefore, it is fundamentally important that one consume his or her chocolate responsibly.


[1]  Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Location 1210). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition. 

[2] Thompson, H.  Smithsonian Institute.  “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin”. February 12, 2015.  Retrieved March 2015.


[3] Hurst, J., Wilson, P.  Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries.  Royal Society of Chemistry; 1 edition. October 2, 2012.

[4] Lippi, D.  “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food”. in Nutrients. May 2013. 1573–1584.  Retrieved March 2015.


Media Sources

Picture of Mary Poppins via Creative Commons. 


Chocolate Prescription via Google Images filtered “labeled for noncommercial reuse”.


The morning chocolate by Pietro Longhi; Venice, 1775-1780 picture via Google Images filtered “labeled for noncommercial reuse”. 


“Eat this not that” picture via Google Images filtered “labeled for noncommercial reuse”.